Even though I studied Geography at A-Level and was going to study the subject at university, I didn’t have a clue that there was a link between ocean pollution and climate change – in fact, I didn’t really know anything about climate change at all except from the fact it was happening, which now, looking back, I find absurd! I’d heard of climate change, global warming, the ozone layer and plastic pollution and I’d studied about fossil fuels, greenhouse gases, renewable and non-renewable energy, but I was completely unaware of the wilting state of the planet and the necessity that we immediately stop poisoning it.
Today, our oceans absorb more than a fourth of the carbon emitted into the atmosphere by humans and contains 90% of the Earth’s excess heat resulting from global warming – half of which has occurred since 1997. Currently, the oceans carry 15% more heat energy than they did in the year 2000, and the intense polluting ways of the past three decades has meant that the planet’s great masses of water now contains three times as much energy than what is encapsulated in the Earth’s remaining fossil fuel reserves.
As a result of this extreme absorption of carbon, ocean acidification has occurred. One of the devastating effects of ocean acidification is its impact on phytoplankton, which are microscopic marine algae that provides food for sea-life, such as jellyfish, whales and a variety of small fish, and is the basis and primary source of aquatic food production.
Ocean acidification has caused the phytoplankton to release sulphur into the atmosphere, which could contribute to a quarter-to-a-half of a degree of warming. This doesn’t sound that bad – in terms of warming at least – but when you consider that the planet is nearing 2°C increase of warming, that we are expected to reach a 4°C increase by the year 2100 if we carry on polluting as we are today, and that in the past a global extinction occurred at a 5°C increase in warming through a natural and gradual build-up of greenhouse gases, it is a significant issue with a terrifying prospect.
According to the National Science Foundation in an article titled SOS: Is Climate Change Suffocating Our Seas?, the past 50 years has seen a worldwide quadrupling in the amount of water with no oxygen present at all. There are now 400 ‘dead zones’, which has grown in total to roughly the size of Europe. Excessive carbon absorption is in part to blame, as the warmer waters carry less oxygen, but this is more of an effect due to the pollution itself in its direct form, such as when 9000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico became a dead-zone as a result of fertiliser chemicals being washed into the Mississippi and flowing downstream. In a bleak and sombre quote, researcher Bastien Queste stated, quite brutal with his honesty, that “the ocean is suffocating”.
In many of the planet’s worst extinctions, the decline of oxygen in sea levels has played a significant role in its terrifying performance. It is unfortunately quite advanced in many areas across the globe, such as in the Gulf of Mexico, but also within the Gulf of Oman – the dead-zone of which is believed by some researchers to be seven times the size of it’s American counterpart. Another example is off the coast of Namibia, where hydrogen sulphide, which scientists suspect to have been the final trigger for the Permian-era extinction and is toxic to the point humans can recognise the tiniest traces, is happily bubbling away along the Skeleton Coast (which is possibly the most dire, yet unfortunately horrifically fitting name for this issue).
Yes, this is pollution, but you might be asking, how does this make climate change worse, considering that the title of this blog post suggests that very point. Firstly, as there is more carbon, less oxygen and more toxic by-products in the oceans, less carbon can be absorbed in the future, and so this allows the planet to trap more heat within the atmosphere and alters our climate worldwide, rather than being pumped through, what used to be, a perfectly well balanced carbon cycle. Secondly, the toxic by-products, such as methane, hydrogen sulphide and sulphur tend to be just as potent, if not even more potent, than carbon in its contribution to global warming.
Finally, there is great concern that the ocean’s pollution will slow down it’s circulatory system, where water is – in super basic terms – transported from the Gulf Stream, is cooled off in the Norwegian Sea, is sent to the bottom of the ocean and pushed southwards to Antarctica, rises to the surface, starts to heat up again and travels back up north. This cycle contributes significantly to the regulation of the planet’s temperature in regional areas, and the potential for it to shut down is incredibly worrying. The planet relies on a state of equilibrium – the sensitivity of which is being recklessly toyed with – and this could cause the coldest areas to become much colder, and the warmest to become a lot warmer. However, a shutdown is unlikely to happen within the lifetime of humans (in relation to a timescale where we’re forgetting that humans are causing an endangerment to species worldwide, including our own), however a slow-down is probable, as already there has been a reduction of 15% in the velocity of the Gulf Stream due to climate change.
What can you do to help? Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to write a post about easy eco-friendly habits that you can start to implement in your day-to-day life, so keep your eyes peeled.